Alison on the Apocalyptic Imagination

Excerpt from James Alison’s Raising Abel, Chapter 6, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia,” Crossroads, 1996, pp. 124-127.

The Apocalyptic Imagination

You will have noticed, on reading the passages which I quoted, and above all those from Thessalonians, that they use a great deal of violent language: the day of vengeance, of punishment, of affliction, and other such expressions. None of this seems to sit well with what I’ve been trying to set out in previous chapters about the coming about of a perception of God that is pruned of violence. Let us face up to this apparent contradiction. The passages which employ this violent language make use of a literary recourse that was widespread in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of Jesus, and is called by its students the “apocalyptic” genre. When we talk of a literary genre we are talking about a way of imagining things that enjoyed a certain popularity, that is we are talking about an imagination. Now, this literary genre, which had been in development since the late prophetic literature (and which can be found well-developed in, for example, the book of Daniel, as well as in other books which we do not usually have in our Bibles, like those of Esdras), has certain characteristics. Normally there is a heavenly vision, mediated by angels, and the end of this world is promised, along with a consolation of the just, among other things. It was in this ambience that the vision of the resurrection of the Maccabee boys which we have already looked at was born.

According to Wayne Meeks, a student of this subject, the apocalyptic genre, and for that reason, the apocalyptic imagination, is characterized by the presence of certain dualities, which can be characterized as follows: (1) a cosmic dualism, that is between heaven and earth (with heaven becoming known through visions mediated by angels); a temporal dualism, between this world, or age, and the world, or age, to come which will begin with the end, probably the destruction, of this one; and a social dualism, that is a division between the good and the bad, the righteous and the impious, the afflicted and the persecutors. This dualism, which imagined the present distress of the righteous and afflicted, would of course be reversed in the age to come. The language which Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians seems to fit exactly into this explanation.

Now, what vision of God and of time lies behind this imagery? It is clear that we are not looking at a pagan version of the eternal return, that is a vision which flows from death to death. The Jews knew very well that such an understanding of time is incompatible with belief in the One Living God. They understood full well (and this had come about during the time of the prophets along with the birth of the understanding of human responsibility and of the possibility of choosing between this or that course of action in a particular historical circumstance) that time runs towards a judgement; this conception is only accessible in the degree to which linear time came to be born. What I suggest to you is that the apocalyptic imagination understands this time-running-towards-judgement still within an understanding of a partial God, just towards the righteous, and implacable with the iniquitous, and that the apocalyptic imagery serves as a way of imagining an ultimate eschatological vengeance in favor of those who feel they are victims, those who resent the present order of things. That is, while the apocalyptic imagination is a huge advance over the pagan imagination, it is still stuck within a notion of a violent God.

The question then, is this: when Jesus talked of his coming and of the end, was he simply enclosed within the apocalyptic imagination? That is, did he accept the dualities proper to the apocalyptic imagination as part of what he was preaching and announcing? It will come as no surprise to you if I say that, as I see it, he was not. It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. There are various ways of glimpsing this in the Gospel, for example in the contrast which is made between the preaching of John the Baptist, which does indeed fit within the apocalyptic imagination, and that of Jesus. Maybe we can see this better if we draw up to it in an indirect way: that is, Jesus’ attitude with respect to the social and the cosmic dualities would already be a good indication of his attitude with respect to the temporal duality.

It is evident that Jesus did not simply accept the social duality of his time, the division between good and evil, pure and impure, Jews and non-Jews. In fact, his practice and his teaching add up to a powerful subversion of this duality. Neither did he accept the cosmic duality, as can be seen in his announcing the coming about now of the Kingdom of God, and, for example, in his teaching his disciples to ask, in their prayer to God:

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

His practice of, and teaching about, celibacy lived now for the kingdom of God — for the children of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage — would be another indication of the same thing. So that it would be very surprising if, breaking as he did with the apocalyptic scheme in these areas, we must imagine that his teaching concerning the temporal duality and the coming of the end remained perfectly within the duality which we have seen, leaving it intact.

There is then a good prima facie reason for thinking that the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination by what I have called Jesus’ eschatological imagination is something proper to Jesus rather than something invented by a disconcerted early community in the face of the indefinite postponement of the Day. This prima facie evidence deepens somewhat when we discover that at the root of the subversion which Jesus was making of these dualities, the criterion of the victim is to be found. Jesus offers a prophetic criterion in terms of ethical demands that are capable of being carried out as the basis of his subversion of these dualities: the social duality is redefined in terms of the victim, so that the victim is the criterion for if one is a sheep or a goat (Matt. 25), or if one is a neighbor (Luke 10); it is victims and those who live precariously who are to be at the center of the new victim people, to whom belongs the kingdom of God which is arriving (Matt. 5-6). No one can be surprised that this insistence, more in the line of the prophetic imagination than the apocalyptic, comes also to be subversive of the cosmic and temporal dualities. It is thus that the forgiving victim, the crucified and risen one, comes to be, himself, the presence of the kingdom in the here and now. (2)

If we consider it in this light, it doesn’t seem surprising that there should have been a development among the members of the apostolic group in the period after the resurrection. If we take the notion of the ‘end’ understood as vengeance, just as it is found in 1 Thessalonians, it is a vengeful end which depends exactly on there being insiders and outsiders, so that the afflicted are vindicated, and the persecutors punished. But in the degree to which the perception of God changes, becoming, as we have seen, shorn of violence, two realities are altered simultaneously: the separation between goodies and baddies, insiders and outsiders, enters into a process of continuous collapse and subversion, and at the same time the “end” cannot remain as a vengeance if there is no longer any clarity about who’s an insider and who an outsider, and under these circumstances the notion of the end itself changes towards what we see in 2 Peter: it becomes a principle of revelation of what had really been going on during the time that has been left for the changing of hearts. The Matthean parables of the wheat and the tares and of the good and bad fishes which we saw in chapter 4 say exactly the same thing. That is, as God is shorn of violence, of necessity a new conception of time is discovered, the time in which the new universality is built. In this way the End, rather than being a vengeful conclusion to time, comes to be a principle, operative in time, by means of which we may live out the arrival of the Son of Man, the being alert for the thief in the night, the whole time. We will study this in greater detail when we analyze the eschatological passages from the four Gospels in the next chapter.

For the moment it seems at least acceptable to suggest that the presence among the disciples of the crucified and risen victim is also the principle by which the duality we have seen between this age and the next is subverted, and by means of which a different comprehension of time itself is born. This comprehension, which we looked at in the previous chapter, might be described as that of time capable of participating in eternity, as distinct from time bent away from eternity. Where time is bent away from eternity, there cannot but be a duality of opposition between this age and the next, and the irruption of God into the human story can only be violent, bringing to its end the present age and beginning a new one. However, where the heavenly reality of the crucified and risen victim is already present to the apostolic group, allowing the beginnings of a human life and sociality which are not marked by death, but whose members are free to live a life of self-giving in imitation of Jesus thanks to their faith in the death-less nature of God, then a continuity is already coming about between this age and the next. Human time itself, an unalienable dimension of the physical creatureliness of the human being, has begun to become capable of sharing in life without end.


1. See his “Social Functions of Apocalyptic Language in Pauline Christianity” in D. Hellholm (ed) Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (Tübingen, 1983).

2. Luke 17:20: “The kingdom of God is entos humon” — among you? In your hands? Between your hands? — As when you hand me over….

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